Endangered Humans

How global land conservation efforts are creating a growing class of invisible refugees.

Shortly after William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he evicted almost 2,000 local Saxons and established a nearly 100,000-acre hunting preserve. Some 800 years later in North America, the U.S. government granted protected status to Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier national parks. Again, as in England, the native peoples were evicted, forbidden to hunt or gather on their ancestral lands, or simply eliminated.

With ever more compelling reasons to protect nature — invaluable ecosystems, biodiversity, and genetic libraries — these stories are repeating themselves today on a global scale. Some 70 percent of the planet’s protected areas are inhabited by human beings, and these local residents are widely viewed as a menace to environmental conservation. Thus, a new breed of refugee is in the making.

The recent worldwide growth of parks and protected areas is impressive. According to the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union, nearly 29,000 protected areas now shield some 2.1 billion acres of land from a series of residential and economic uses. These territories compose 6.4 percent of the earth’s land, or about half of the world’s croplands, and are roughly the size of the continental United States plus half of Alaska. Most of this protection is recent. From less than 1,000 protected areas in 1950, the count grew to 3,500 in 1985 before ballooning to 29,000 today. The most ardent conservationists seek to multiply today’s base several times. If such global "greenlining" continues without concern for the rights of resident populations, its gains could take an enormous human toll.

Africa offers a telling example of greenlining with manifest social costs. In 1985, Africa had 443 publicly protected areas encompassing 217 million acres of land. Facing international pressure, virtually all African countries have since increased their protected land base. Today, over 1,000 protected areas account for nearly 380 million acres of African land, with 7 countries claiming protected status for more than 10 percent of their land base. In 14 African countries, more land is greenlined than cultivated, and the poorer countries in Africa today have on average more land set aside for conservation than the continent’s more affluent nations.

How many people have these conservation efforts displaced? A precise count of conservation refugees in Africa and elsewhere remains elusive, in part due to diverse definitions of a "protected area," enforcement problems, and recidivism among refugees. In Africa, well-known cases of mass eviction have occurred in Uganda, Botswana, Cameroon, Madagascar, South Africa, Togo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, affecting nearly half a million people. For example, Tanzania’s Masailand is now dotted with national parks that have displaced more than 60,000 farmers and pastoralists from their ancestral lands. Indirect measurements — such as multiplying the area under protection by a low range of possible human densities — yield estimates of 900,000 to 14.4 million people. If accurate, these upper bounds mean that conservation refugees in Africa could roughly equal the global refugee population of 14.5 million people currently calculated by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

Global conservation is surely a worthy cause, but its sometimes insensitive implementation raises serious environmental justice questions. Indeed, the very notion of "environmental justice" typically applies to infringement on environmental rights by ecologically blind development. But when conservation erases the rights of resident peoples, the expansion of protected areas resembles urban renewal or megaproject development — both notorious for displacing human communities in the name of some perplexing public interest. Whose public interest does greenlining serve? Seldom the interests of conservation refugees, who remain invisible in conservation planning debates.

This invisibility has multiple causes. The first involves the nature of refugee reality: Authorities usually deny refugee problems until they take on crisis proportions, and the official definitions of a refugee exclude many forms of displacement. Policymakers and environmentalists periodically disregard the social and cultural impact of protected areas, perceiving conservation as the opposite of "development" and portraying local residents as intruders. A final reason is class bias. Environmental refugees in Africa and elsewhere tend to be poor and powerless. It is the wealthy inhabitants of the planet who benefit most from greenlining — enjoying exotic vacation destinations, new targets for their tax-deductible largess, windfall gains in value for their high-end properties in or near protected zones, and what Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson calls "biophilia," or a deeply felt loyalty to the earth’s biota. Local inhabitants are rarely so fortunate. Many live on marginal lands in marginal places with marginal rights to remain in their communities. Their contributions to the ecosystem are taken for granted and appropriated with little compensation. Simply put, conservation refugees are invisible because visibility raises the price of conservation.

Green consciousness, vital as it is to human survival, must broaden its vision of global welfare as it broadens its reach. Nearly half of the planet’s most species-rich areas contain human populations suffering severe economic disadvantages. The tropics, where biodiversity flourishes most, are home to nearly 60 percent of the world’s most destitute people. While global conservation does not cause poverty, neither should it exacerbate poverty. The poor should not be asked to disproportionately subsidize the expansion of conservation. They, too, must have voice and choice. If conservationists are to retain the mantle of justice, they must find alternatives to involuntary and uncompensated human displacement.

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